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Desert Companion

Ten Years. Ten Writers. Ten Perspectives. (PART 1: 2007-2011)

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House Balloon
Illustration by Brent Holmes

The valley took on many guises during the decade that Desert Companion has covered it. Foreclosure capital. Party town. City of ambiguity. Some of our favorite writers look back at the years that were important to them.

See Part 2

 

2007

Ignorance Is Bliss

Oh, the things we didn’t see coming!

By Hugh Jackson

“Residential construction remains in the dumps,” stated a second-quarter 2007 report from UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “Slowly, however, job growth will turn things around.”

“Southern Nevada’s residential market is experiencing one of the worst downturns in the region’s history,” local consultant Jeremy Aguero confided to homebuilders later that year, the Las Vegas Sun reported. But Aguero anticipated “a gradual recovery by late 2008.”

I didn’t see the crash coming, either. By 2007, the foreclosure rate was rising fast, kitchen-table conversations routinely included the word “underwater,” and ominous reports about some manner of weirdness having to do with subprime mortgages were surfacing in the media. Like a lot of folks, I’d long presumed, if only casually, that overinflated housing prices of the preceding years were unsustainable. But in 2007, the popped housing bubble still looked more like a correction than a cataclysm.

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The housing bubble was big, but the financial bubble, in which mortgages had been furiously purchased, bundled, and packaged into exotic investment products, was bigger. Some people foresaw that in 2007, but few if any of them were Nevadans, and I certainly wasn’t among them. Nor did I know that within months the global economy would plunge into the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, and that nowhere would be hit as hard, and for as long, as Las Vegas.

Neither, evidently, did Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and other Democratic presidential candidates who visited Las Vegas regularly throughout 2007.

Nevada’s “first-in-the-West” presidential caucus was created by Harry Reid as a party-building mechanism to help, well, him. But it put Nevada in the thick of the presidential nomination contest as never before. The caucus took place in mid-January 2008, so throughout 2007, Democratic candidates were giving Nevada an unprecedented amount of attention. (Republican candidates all but ignored the Republican caucus, which turned out to be an irrelevant flop.)

That year, I was doing some freelance writing and editing, but mostly I was blogging. In 2007 blogs were still a thing. Candidates took my questions, my interview requests — me — with as much seriousness (or lack thereof) as they did reporters from the state’s newspapers, also, then, still a thing.

In a press conference I got to pepper the then-inexperienced candidate Obama about raising income caps on Social Security taxes so that the rich would pay their fair share. He didn’t have an answer. “You stopped him like a clock,” a reporter with one of the local dailies said as we were leaving the room, which is the sort of remark a lowly blogger remembers. I also got a couple of one-on-one interviews with Obama, and remember pressing him about what some on the left perceived as a wishy-washy commitment to getting U.S. forces out of Iraq. “I’ve answered your question,” he brusquely responded at one point. Only in retrospect did I realize I’d triggered his version of getting snippy.

I interviewed most of the candidates, including Edwards (the guy I ended up caucusing for because, oh yeah, I can pick ’em) and Joe Biden (close talker, went on and on, was wearing the same frayed tie every time I saw him), along with Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich (single-payer, anyone?), and … not Clinton. She had a bubble of her very own in 2007, the inevitability bubble. Convinced she would win the nomination, she and her team granted comparatively few one-on-one interviews, and none to a blogger who mocked her presumption of inevitability by routinely referring to her and her campaign as “the Borg.”

Clinton’s inaccessibility notwithstanding, never before had presidential contenders showered so much love on the state. In subsequent cycles, and thanks to Nevada’s swing-state status, the novelty of presidential politics has worn off a bit. And I confess, the older I get, the less patience I can muster for politicians. But perhaps at no time over the course of my almost successful career did I have quite so much good, clean fun as I did covering candidates in 2007. It was a blast.

But it wasn’t about the economy. The Democratic campaign, at least in 2007, was mostly about healthcare and — the issue that would deprive Clinton of the nomination — U.S. militarism.  

Foreclosures did start to emerge as a minor campaign issue late in 2007. But during a November Democratic debate at UNLV, broadcast on CNN, foreclosures never came up. (While reviewing blog archives to write this piece, I took some very, very small solace in learning that I at least noted that omission the night of the debate.) The exchange that got the most media play involved drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. In what was the very first nationally televised debate in Nevada among candidates for president, the economy barely reared its soon-to-be abominable head.

So I guess the thing that strikes me most about 2007 is how pretty much everybody, including me, managed to remain clueless about what was really going on in 2007.

A decade later, Southern Nevada’s economy has clawed out of the depths, at least by some measures. But it hasn’t recovered its swagger or, more important, that relatively broad access to, and distribution of, prosperity that in some ways once distinguished Las Vegas from other U.S. cities. The post-crash market economy fails to provide perhaps as much as a third of Nevada’s adult workers with adequate wages and employment conditions.

A decade from now we’ll know if local establishment-preferred economic initiatives — low taxes and tax incentives, education “reform,” a new football stadium, etc. — are up to post-crash challenges, or if we are, yet again, missing the plot.

 

2008

Year of Change

Life in transition: marriage, home, job, self

By Erica Vital-Lazare

This is either a love story or fated social suicide, confession or accusation, a tying together or total unraveling: I almost left here in 2008, one of that year’s many dispirited Vegas casualties in the great shakeup of marriages, careers, and real estate. 

Like the city itself, the time was jury-rigged, pieced together by mishaps and scandal.

On the Strip, the rebar of one of the last new properties to emerge financially unobstructed in the midst of the Great Crash was just beginning to rise, most of us yet unaware that tourists would one day burn in the shadows of its beauty as the convergence phenomenon known as “the death ray” bounced the sun’s rays off the concave face of Vdara to dive kamikaze-like into the pool. Further up the block, the Trump International residential tower opened amid lawsuits and protests, while on the other side of the continent, New Jersey apologized for slavery. Credit markets froze, the valley constructed snowmen rather than homes during that December’s record snowfall, a local doctor spawned a hepatitis outbreak, endangering nearly 60,000 patients with infection after reusing syringes and medical vials at a clinic that was already questionable, and visions of Criss Angel flew through the open windows of a valley where one out of 10 homes neared foreclosure, to descend, arms outstretched, messianically, atop the Luxor, where the entertainer’s magical stylings then took up and now remain in residence.

Like the pyramid property, 2008 seemed made of papier mâché, each tick of the clock a match set to burn as I transitioned from writing for the Review-Journal’s Real Estate section — pages gone thinner, hours longer — which itself had been a transition from the View community newspapers and back again. In the gap, I had taken a position with a public-relations firm that promised to compensate me with numbers I had thought unimaginable. An office with windows came with lunch ordered in, cocktail parties, show tickets, and all-day golf among lovely people whose dark hearts under shiny exteriors soon toyed with the genuine love I have for humanity. I am sure they were as lovely as they appeared, and only the year itself lent the situation a sense of marketeering darkness. They endured my puzzled silences and inability to BS with the brittle patience of consummate professionals.  For that I am grateful.

I left a husband and purchased a condo in a complex that later became embroiled in an infamous indictment of HOA executives, ending with the investigation of a kingpin who had always been very nice to me. I search my memory for the occasion on which I may have met any of the other key figures in this debacle. I come up blank as the year itself — 2008 is a scribbled-over canvas best left to hang alone, unlit, in its corner. 

I quit the PR firm, stayed up those few weekend nights my sons spent with my ex-husband, and moved in with my mother.

That year was the fabled fault line through this town we have been told about but do not quite believe exists, until we are shaken.

It occurs to me I had only pretended to live here until then. My peerage and I had come out West with degrees and new husbands in the fevered rush of the late nineties, had found meaningful work in law firms and budding home offices, classrooms and executive parlors. We’d hung out our shingles, signed up for preschools and Gymboree, bought cars and Humvees, redecorated already fine homes, took trips to Yosemite and Disney — swam with the dolphins.

Drawn to the neon by soft greed and history, we’d blinked sweetly into the face of previous years; 2008 came in blinding. It was the true solar convergence where all that once glittered was made thankfully more clear.

 

 

2009

Once, Twice,Three Times

Three Lionels

If you’re lost, the three Lionels will bring you back

By Danielle Kelly

In 2009, the Las Vegas Contemporary Art Center took a risk on an idea: the Off the Strip Festival. While most years can seem hard for the arts in Las Vegas, 2009 was particularly difficult. The closure of the Las Vegas Art Museum early in the year was a crushing blow, casting a long, dark shadow in its wake. Off the Strip was an emergent glimmer of hope, offering the city of big shows and even bigger lights a festival of new media and performance-based works.

What felt like a gamble at the time fit seamlessly into the city that performs itself nightly. And for a few short years, three to be exact, Off the Strip drew art and artists from all over the world to the belly of the American spectacle for video and experimental performance. It also drew people out of their homes and together at time when the Las Vegas visual arts community was desperate for a sense of agency, some small faith in the ability to propel itself forward into a new future it so desperately needed.

2009 is also the year that artist Joe Nanashe created the video piece “3xladyx3” (later screened during the 2010 iteration of Off the Strip). It remains, for me, a most perfect and unforgettable Las Vegas art experience.

If you aren’t a fan of Lionel Richie, then you should really stop reading now. Because if you aren’t a fan of Lionel Richie, you simply won’t understand the lure of his voice, casually ping-ponging across the unique geometry of Commercial Center. The burning orange-pink desert sun sliding into the western horizon, replicated in hue by a glowing empty storefront, recessed in the deepest corner of Las Vegas’ weirdest and most wonderful strip mall. Lights flashing to the rhythm of a song, familiar but difficult to pin down. A tune repeated in triplicate, chasing itself over seconds and years.

I remember meandering across the lot and barely catching the voice — not once, not twice, but three times a lady. I gasped and whispered, “Lionel.”

Nanashe’s video was installed inside a tiny 1960s storefront. Imagine projected on a cinder-block wall, immediately adjacent to the giant glass window, three versions of Lionel Richie singing “Three Times A Lady.” At the bottom, anchoring the image, is a darkened stage and a spectral sea of lighters, matches, and tiny blinkering lights. In the top left corner, the Commodores appear in costumed splendor on a daytime variety show (Merv Griffin? Mike Douglas?). Richie sits at the piano. At the top right is 1987 Richie, basking in the adoration of fans, arguably at the height of his post-Commodores solo career. The three Lionels launch into the song, one man yet three different men all at the same time. The ensuing complexity defies description. Commodores Lionel is earnest and intimate, a little shy and perhaps lip-syncing, but truly feeling each word of the song. Eighties Lionel plays to the audience, physically prowling the stage as he confidently works the crowd, throwing the song at them, expertly giving the people what they want. From the darkened stage at the bottom of the configuration emerges the ’90s Lionel, fully actualized and serenading the camera. His face has changed, thanks to time and surgery, but it is Lionel and he performs himself only for you. It is slick and slightly arch, the song a mere vehicle for delivering the Superstar direct to your living room. The three faces of Lionel.

I sat in a wheeled desk chair across from the projection in the middle of the room, watching the video again and again. Losing my earnestness, my hunger for life, terrifies me. I wonder if it fades with youth, and we wake up one day and it’s gone, while we simply perform a version of ourselves as time floats by. Or maybe we hone a set of tics and gestures that simply become the language of the self, slowly sloughing off the sharper edges until we drown ever deeper inside of our bodies, looking outward, watching the self demonstrated in a series of actions and reactions repeated, finally by instinct, thousands and thousands and thousands of times over the course of a lifetime.

The front of my body was warmed by light, flickering on my face as it bounced off the wall. And the city light I love so well reached for me, lunging at arms and legs through the window. At times behind the beat, at others ahead, the combined voices of the three Lionels united only once, for the chorus, at the very end. I almost cried every single time.

 

 

2010

My Recession

Jogging Andrew

After heartbreak, it took a retreat into memory to find the way forward

By Andrew Kiraly

One Saturday morning in February 2010, I was sitting on a bench outside a Centennial Hills Walgreens, clutching a garbage bag hastily stuffed with clothes. You know that feeling when you’re waiting impatiently for a ride, whether it’s the bus, a friend, or a taxi, and you shift into this mental gear of actively desperate waiting that some part of you believes will help alchemically conjure the very vehicle you’re waiting for? That times 10: My ride was an escape pod to flee the debris field of a shattered marriage.

My mom finally pulled up in the truck. On the long ride back to my parents’ house on the east side, she didn’t say anything and just let me cry.

In 2010, I moved back into my childhood home and lived there for two years. It was a strange, sad, happy, difficult time. I played a lot of cribbage with my dad, getting to know him in a new way. He was ex-military and had always been a terse and gruff disciplinarian, but things were different now. He was mellowing with age, and I was, well, naked and raw with humiliating need and desperation. He showed me compassion, patience, and warmth. I drank a lot at night. Often it was cocktails out with friends, but just as often it was a therapeutic bottle of Trader Joe’s wine in the blue-carpeted living room, numbly watching NCIS with my mom. They gave me a house key; they gave me the truck. They never asked how long I planned to stay, even when boxes started appearing in the garage.

In the mornings, I went running to clear my head. Sunrise Manor had decayed: dead lawns, foil in windows, cars in front yards. There seemed to be a halfway house on every street now. It was easy to tell the halfway houses. The garage door would be open, and the men and women were shuffling around, smoking, watching the street with bright-eyed, medicated vigilance. They never bothered anybody, but it gave the neighborhood a sense of surreal languor. I’d run west along the Las Vegas Wash, where we used to catch frogs and crawdads, smash bottles, experiment with four-letter words, savor our first tastes of adolescent misadventure. (Just north of the wash used to be the Desert 5 drive-in theater, where mom took us to see The Empire Strikes Back in our hulking turquoise Buick station wagon.) In the urban creek now there were homeless men, trash, and graffiti, but also lush stands of willow, and hidden places where the water would purl and murmur over mossy rocks. One time I was startled by a violent rustling to see a heron launch from the reeds into majestic flight. Near Boulder Highway, I would pass by the sagging, leering old mansion that was once a brothel called Roxie’s. Growing up, we thought it was a satanic coven guarded by demon dogs, and we’d scare ourselves by walking or driving by the house at night. I’d pass my old elementary school, Walter V. Long. On the weekend, I’d hop over the fence to visit the old blacktop playground, where we’d played countless matches of tetherball and four-square. I’d pass the 7-Eleven where we’d spent summer afternoons playing Defender and Dragon’s Lair, wired on whatever was in Slurpees. On these morning runs, I was moving through time as well as space.

I felt a hunger for memories. I think I was unconsciously convinced that, somehow, visitation with these phantoms of the past would point me the way forward through a divorce and toward new love. It was as though I’d veered off somewhere and became the wrong character, and I had to go back to pick up the plot that led to the true Andrew. Thinking back on this time when every day was a swirl of then and now, it seems unreal, yet precious. My parents have since died, and our house on Boston Avenue has been sold. I’d like to say I managed to successfully retrieve some proper sense of self, the right me, but I’m simply grateful for having had the chance to visit that world once more before my portal to it vanished.

Beyond this small world, Las Vegas was trying to smile and bluff its way through the recession. CityCenter had opened in December 2009; I attended the opening-night bash, smiling and bluffing, too. The Smith Center held its topping-off ceremony in February 2010; I went, and scrawled my name on the memorial girder. The Cosmopolitan was under construction for a December 2010 opening, teasing us with a cryptic ad campaign. I think of 2010 as a year when such compulsive, errant, maybe even defiant persistence was necessary.

(There was a woman who went to The Cosmopolitan opening party whose date was a grown man living with his parents. They ended up getting married.)

 

 

2011

Three Scenes

‘Like some kind of reality show’

By Scott Dickensheets

1. And I Feel Fine

I remember exactly where I was when the world didn’t end. Sure, there were a lot of times in 2011 that the world didn’t end, though there were several moments when it seemed about to, and even a few when I wished it would — mostly those dark, dark hours when I calculated my house’s negative equity. But the day I’m thinking of is the day it was supposed to end: May 21, 2011, right around 6 p.m. You remember, right? Harold Camping, religious crackpot? Predicted The Rapture would happen then?

In case you hadn’t noticed, it fizzled.

For me, 2011 wasn’t a flashbulb year, indelibly time-stamped by seismic life events. I changed jobs, yeah, and went to my one and only session of yoga, got called “Chickensheets” by a local blogger — just another so-so season of this reality show we call life. Still, bits of 2011 stuck to me in stubborn ways. I recall the skin-crawl of seeing horrid paintings by serial killer John Wayne Gacy hanging in the Arts Factory. Of receiving, out of the blue, fevered, illiterate emails from a woman named Carole in New Hampshire, who was apparently unhinged by Obama: “Has SATIN taken an office in the White House?” Of picking up an apocalyptic backbeat in that year’s events — Fukushima, the foreclosure crisis, the futility of trying to escape “Rolling in the Deep.”

And I remember what was supposed to be this wicked world’s final, keel-over, clutch-the-chest, thud-to-the-floor, flatline moment. Indeed, I remember 6 p.m., May 21, because the blithe nihilism of Camping’s prediction — I’m never clear whether people like him are more excited about ascending to heaven or watching the rest of us broil in fire — contrasted so perfectly with where I was at the time: on the patio of a Henderson country club, watching two young friends get married. Watching two young friends spend a sweet spring evening betting everything on the possibility of a long, fruitful future, and then eating catered chicken.

Looking back, I wish I’d made more of that moment, and others that year. I wish I’d have considered how imagining the end of the world gives us the chance to reflect on what’s worth saving about it. I wish I’d have seen the prehensile grasping of Carole from New Hampshire’s paranoia as the warning sign it probably was (save yourself, 2016!). I wish I’d have decided, in true Chickensheets fashion, to skip Gacy’s crap. Instead, I toasted my friends, which was enough.

 

2. Funny/Not Funny?

One March night in 2011, back when my home was so far underwater it was like living in a bathysphere, I went to see Doug Stanhope perform at Sunset Station. Not only because a blast of uninhibited, piety-shredding comedy sounded just right to clear my recession-addled skull, but, I guess, as a kind of mental/emotional status check. (Also, a friend had tickets.)

See, what interested me about Stanhope’s act was the way it forces an ongoing, real-time self-appraisal: What will I laugh at now? There in the dark anonymity of a club, what boundaries of taste would I observe voluntarily, if any? Would I laugh at jokes about Fukushima drowning victims if everyone else did, if no one would disapprove?

That night, Stanhope wound down with a bit premised on the shattered economy: If the rest of us become broke and desperate, we can sell our bodies — but what Plan B do prostitutes have?

Never mind that economists had declared the recession over in 2009 — tell it to my 2011 mortgage. To the people who feared that year’s Legislature would force UNLV to cut whole academic departments. To the Economic Policy Institute, which reported that Las Vegas had the nation’s highest rate of black unemployment in 2011. To Governor Sandoval, who was still talking about “shared sacrifice.” In the gambling hall of our Wall Streeted economy, there’s over and there’s over.

The prostitute’s only option, according to Stanhope, was a series of ever more depraved acts that I won’t sully our time here by describing. In my memory, Stanhope’s really getting into his characterization of the woman, working the stage back and forth, his voice and accent making it clear his prostitute was a poor minority woman who could imagine no other option.

Now, I dig Stanhope’s battering-ram style, and I believe there’s a real value to breaching decorum the way he does — after all, good taste probably isn’t the same as morality, though we’d often like to think otherwise. And it was very obviously a linguistic construct — no actual sex workers were degraded in the making of this bit — and the target of his bitter satire was ultimately, I think, the architects of the recession. Everyone laughed.

Almost everyone.

 

3. Engage!

Late January. “Who’s the coolest person you met today?” I asked my son.

“Well —”

“PATRICK STEWART!” I barked, triumphant. “That’s who I hung with today.” In! Your! Face!

He looked blank.

“‘Engage’…?” I murmured, making a wan Capt. Picard gesture.

He looked, if anything, blanker.

Wait. “Professor Xavier, from X-Men.”

Whoa! “Him?!

Him. Stewart was in town researching a Sin City-themed version of The Merchant of Venice. He wanted to get the place just right, which meant acquiring a deeper understanding of recession-ravaged, spectacle-driven, money-mad, growth-crazy, over-the-top Las Vegas. He was talking to a lot of people, including me and then-Las Vegas Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican.

The three of us sat in a window seat in the Mandarin Oriental’s tea lounge, indulging my love of being questioned in a manicured British accent. Stewart asked about Las Vegas’ history and politics, its economics and social issues. Culture. Growth. Oh, and gambling — Stewart preferred blackjack. “I have a system,” he said.

I don’t like meeting people whose work I admire, though not because I fear they’ll disappoint me. They usually don’t. Stewart didn’t. But me? I’m an ordinary guy, with an ordinary life and finite energy reserves, and I suck at small talk with strangers. So I’ve come to detest the effort required to make myself interesting to interesting people. And yet I could have floated indefinitely in the magnetic field of Stewart’s sculpted diction, his generous attention. Alas, it had to end: The remainder of 2011 required my attendance, with its whole weird juggling act of joys and armageddons — real and imagined — its negative equities and foregone confusions, the daily dice roll and crapshoot of life in these United States. It’s okay, though. I have a system.

Also, you know, Stewart had to leave.

As we stood up, Coolican said, “We thought this might be a hoax. We’ve been telling people about our meeting with (air quotes) ‘Patrick Stewart.’”

He laughed. “Like some kind of reality show,” he said.

See Part 2

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